There have been dozens of controversial incidents throughout the history of the NHL as well as dozens of controversial players. Some of these players will be forever known as controversial due to just one serious event while others may have been involved in multiple incidents. However, not all NHL controversies take place on the ice. Some of them stem from off-ice and dressing room incidents as well as making ill-advised comments to the press. It can be safe to say that most controversial players were known as dirty players or cheap shot artists though.
Below is a list of the top 15 most controversial NHL players of all time and since it’s limited to just 15 there have been some eligible candidates that have been left out. These include players such as Tiger Williams, Tie Domi, Marty McSorley, Bob Probert, Donald Brashear, Theo Fleury, Eddie Shore, Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Chris Pronger, Jeremy Roenick, John Kordic, Rocket Richard, Claude Lemieux, Jarkko Ruutu, and Darcy Tucker.
Most NHL players would rather stay away from controversy, but sometimes it just can’t be helped. This is especially true of those who have been on the receiving end of on-ice muggings and attacks. For example, Steve Moore, Pierre Turgeon, and Ace Bailey will forever be associated with some of the league’s most-controversial moments just because they were victims. It doesn’t take much to stir up trouble these days due to the politically-correct world we live in, but most of these players listed below are no longer active.
15 Patrick Roy
Although he’s a Hall of Famer and one of the best goaltenders in NHL history, Patrick Roy wasn’t and isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. The current coach of the Colorado Avalanche upset a lot of Montreal Canadiens fans back in December of 1995 when he was guarding the net for the Habs at the old Montreal Forum against the Detroit Red Wings. Roy allowed nine goals on just 26 shots and local fans gave him the Bronx cheer when he managed to make a save. However, they may have soon regretted it when Roy was eventually pulled and walked behind the bench to whisper in Canadiens’ president Ronald Corey’s ear. Roy told Corey he’d never play for the team again and claimed coach Mario Tremblay left him in the game long enough to humiliate him. The goaltender found himself traded to the Colorado Avalanche four days later. In addition, Roy was arrested for domestic abuse while playing in Denver, but the charges were later dropped when his wife refused to pursue the matter.
14 Ulf Samuelsson
Former Swedish defenceman Ulf Samuelsson was considered by many fans and fellow players to be quite a cheap shot artist and served 2,453 penalty minutes in 1,080 regular season NHL games along with a couple of short suspensions. Many fans also blame him for basically ending the career of former Vancouver Canuck and Boston Bruins star winger Cam Neely. Samuelsson laid the power forward out with a controversial hit to the knee in the 1991 Wales Conference Final and that was more or less the beginning of the end for Neely. There was no penalty on the play though. Samuelsson rarely fought, but was on the receiving end of a sucker punch when Toronto’s Tie Domi gave him a shot to the head during a game in 1995 when he played for the New York Rangers. Domi was then handed an eight-game suspension for it. Samuelsson was also embroiled in a 1998 controversy during the Olympics when it was found he held both Swedish and American citizenship, which meant Sweden no longer recognized him as a citizen since it doesn’t allow dual citizenship. He was booted off Sweden’s team, but reinstated in 2003 when the country altered its law.
13 Bobby Clarke
Bobby Clarke is another Hall of Famer who was a great player, but often crossed the line. Clarke had a reputation of being a gritty player who wasn’t shy of using his stick for more than just playing the puck. The former Philadelphia Flyers captain had the Broad Street Bullies to back him up and rarely dropped the gloves himself. However, he didn’t hesitate to use his stick as a weapon. His most controversial incident occurred back in 1972 during the original Canada vs. Russia eight-game summit series. Clarke took his stick and gave Russian forward Valeri Kharlamov a two hander right across the ankle and fractured it in the process. The attack took place in game six with Russia holding a 3-1-1 series lead and the Russian Wizard already having six points to his name. Kharlamov missed the next game, but returned for the series finale, but was no where nearly as effective. Canada, of course, won the series on Paul Henderson’s last-minute goal. Clarke remained a controversial figure when he took over as the Flyers’ GM and upset many people with his comments about former coach Roger Neilson and player Eric Lindros.
12 Mike Milbury
Former defenceman Mike Milbury was quite a controversial General Manager for the New York Islanders due to some of the damaging deals he made, but he was also a controversial player many years earlier. Milbury’s most infamous incident as a player was hilarious to some and sickening to others. While playing for the Boston Bruins, the American-born Milbury and several of his teammates climbed over the glass and into the stands at New York’s Madison Square Garden just two days before Christmas in 1979. The Bruins had just dealt the Rangers a 4-3 loss and the home fans weren’t too happy about the chippy way the Boston players performed. A fight broke out between a couple of players at the final buzzer and before the cops could intervene Milbury and friends were battling it out with Rangers’ fans in the crowd. Milbury grabbed hold of one guy’s shoe and proceeded to beat him with it in a scene that would have been right at home in the Slapshot movie. Milbury was hit with a $500 fine and six-game ban for the classic move. Milbury, who now works as a TV hockey analyst, was also charged with assaulting a 12-year-old child after a pee wee hockey game in 2011. He was cleared though and claimed he was simply breaking up a fight.
11 Darryl Sittler
Class was often the word used to describe former Toronto Maple Leafs’ captain Darryl Sittler and it was well deserved. However, the high-scoring centre sometimes wore his heart on his sleeve and his emotions may have gotten the better of him. It was no secret that Sittler and line-mate Lanny McDonald were the best of friends and when GM Punch Imlach traded McDonald and Joel Quenneville to the Colorado Rockies in December of 1979 for Wilf Paiement and Pat Hickey, he took it personally. Sittler responded shortly after the deal by removing the C from the sweater and owner Harold Ballard called him a cancer in the dressing room. Sittler wrote in his autobiography, “In a very emotional speech to the players, I explained what I was doing, and why I was doing it. Imlach was trying to break down this whole team, didn't want me as captain and wouldn't let me function as one. All of the outside controversy had gotten too big; all I wanted to do as play hockey." Sittler had already had a few run-ins with Imlach prior to this as the GM tried to prevent the player from appearing on a Hockey Night in Canada skills competition called "Showdown," which aired between periods of Saturday night games. Unfortunately for Leafs fans, Sittler had enough of the circus at Maple Leaf Gardens and agreed to lift his no-trade clause. He was shipped out to Philadelphia by new GM Gerry McNamara in January of 1982.
10 Ted Lindsay
"Terrible" Ted Lindsay patrolled the left wing for the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Black Hawks from 1944 to 1965 with all but three seasons in the Motor City. He may have stood just 5-feet-8-inches tall and weighed about 160 lbs, but he was as tough as nails. Lindsay didn’t shy away from the rough stuff and served 1808 minutes in penalties in 1,068 regular-season games. He was considered dirty by some, but was an accomplished scorer and playmaker who amassed 851 career points and won the Art Ross in 1949-50. While Lindsay’s style of play was slightly controversial, he stirred up quite a buzz for his off-ice actions back in the late 1950s when he was traded from Detroit to Chicago for trying to organize the very first NHL players’ union. Red Wings GM Jack Adams stripped the C from Lindsay’s sweater and eventually sent him packing for his role the union shenanigans. Lindsay threatened the NHL with a an anti-trust lawsuit in 1958 and the league soon gave in to most of the player’s demands. However, a permanent union wasn’t formed until 1967.
9 Dale Hunter
Although Dale Hunter played the game with a decided edge to it, he was an excellent captain and leader and had a pretty good offensive flair with 1,020 career points. However, he’ll likely be remembered the most for his cheap shot on Pierre Turgeon in the 1992-93 playoffs. Turgeon had 58 goals and 132 points for the New York Islanders that season and his team took on Hunter’s Washington Capitals in the Patrick Division semi-finals. The Islanders appeared to have the series wrapped up when Turgeon stripped Hunter of the puck scored to give them a 5-1 lead. While Turgeon was celebrating the goal, Hunter nailed him and sent him crashing to the ice. The goals scorer suffered a separated shoulder from the hit and missed the Islanders’ next six playoff games. Hunter was nailed with a 21-game suspension for the hit, which was the longest in NHL history at the time. Turgeon remained a skilled player, but never hit the heights of the 1992-93 season again as he seemed to shy away from physical contact.
8 Chris Simon
Controversy seemed to follow enforcer Chris Simon around the ice. He wasn’t signed to score goals and set up teammates, but rather to intimidate the opposition. He did a pretty good job of it when playing within the rules, but for some reason he had a habit of breaking them. The forward was involved in several nasty incidents during his career and the NHL suspended him a total of eight times for them. His worst act of violence took place in 2007 when he was banned for a then-record 30 games. Simon, who was playing for the New York Islanders at the time, stomped on the leg of fellow agitator Jarkko Ruutu after tripping him to earn the suspension. The repeat offender had earlier served a 25-game ban for slashing Ryan Hollweg in the head and was also suspended for racial slurs and kneeing with his total bans adding up to 65 games.
7 Sean Avery
Former forward Sean Avery was controversial both on and off the ice due to his actions and his mouth. He was suspended while playing with the Dallas Stars for comments he made to the media about fellow NHL’ers and his former girlfriends in the “sloppy seconds” incident. His aggravating style also saw him stand in front of New Jersey Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur during a playoff game for about 20 seconds while attempting to block his view and movement. Avery, who was playing for the New York Rangers at the time, faced Brodeur while the play moved down the other end of the ice and simply got in his face. Avery wasn’t breaking any rules back then, but his actions were deemed to be very unsportsmanlike. It didn’t take the NHL long to react as the league introduced a new rule less than 24 hours later which stated that any player who attempted to interfere with the goalie would be handed a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike behaviour. Avery apparently didn’t grow up after retiring as he was arrested late in 2015 for throwing objects at passing cars and allegedly possessing a controlled substance.
6 Matt Cooke
Forward Matt Cooke has gotten under a lot of people’s skin during his career for his controversial style of play. He’s considered to be nothing more than a dirty player by many fans and fellow professionals as he’s been known to target opponents’ heads with his body checks. Cooke is classified as a repeat offender by the NHL since he’s been suspended on more than one occasion. He nailed Boston Bruins’ forward Marc Savard with a blind-sided hit to the head several seasons ago and Savard never recovered. In addition, while playing with the Pittsburgh Penguins many people felt Cooke deliberately ran his skate down the back of Ottawa defenceman Erik Karlsson's leg during a February, 2013 game in Pittsburgh. Karlsson suffered a torn Achilles tendon on the play and took months to recover and rejoin his teammates. Although many fans believe Cooke knew exactly what he was doing against Savard and Karlsson, the controversies grew because he wasn’t suspended on either play.
5 Wayne Maki
One of the NHL’s ugliest incidents actually occurred during an exhibition game back in 1969 between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. Bruins’ tough-guy defenceman Ted Green got into a stick-swinging duel with Blues’ rookie forward Maki on a September night in Ottawa. The two players collided in the Bruins zone and Green suddenly turned around and aimed his stick at Maki’s head, but luckily missed. Maki then returned the favour, but nailed Green right on his helmetless head. Green fell to the ice bleeding, badly hurt. The defenceman tried to get up, but fell back down and was then rushed to hospital. Doctors said he had suffered a depressed skull fracture by his right temple. He underwent a five-hour operation and later had another to keep him alive. Both players were suspended and fined by the league and charged with assault by Ottawa police. Maki received a 30-day ban and $300 fine and the charges were thrown out of court weeks later. Maki made it to the NHL and wasn’t known as a dirty player, but will always be remembered for what is known as one of the NHL’s most controversial plays ever. Unfortunately, he died of a brain tumor in 1974 while a member of the Vancouver Canucks.
4 Ted Green
For an introduction to former Bruins’ defenceman Ted Green, be sure to read the Chico Maki information above at number five on this list. Green, like Maki, will never be forgotten for the ugly stick-swinging incident. But unlike the rookie Blues’ player, Green was a veteran at the time of the incident in 1969 and one of the most feared players in the game. Green was suspended for 13 games for the incident and probably didn’t expect a young rookie to stand up to him. Remarkably, Green survived the vicious stick to the head and returned to the Boston lineup the next season after paying his $300 fine. However, he had a metal plate inserted in his head and spent the rest of his career wearing a helmet.
3 Bobby Hull
The Golden Jet was never really a controversial player on the ice while streaking down the left wing for the Chicago Blackhawks, but he stirred up a quite fuss when he signed with the WHA (World Hockey Association) back in 1972. The WHA tried to lure the NHL’s best players after the league launched and it hit the jackpot when Hull agreed to sign a then-unheard-of million dollar contract with the Winnipeg Jets. The signing gave the new league instant credibility and Hull skated in 411 games in the WHA, scoring 638 points on 303 goals and 335 assists. He also chipped in with 80 points in 60 postseason contests. Hull was controversially kept off of the 1972 summit series between Canada and Russia since the Canadian team was made up of NHL players only. Hull also stirred the pot off the ice. He was married three times, and also accused of beating his spouse on more than one occasion, but was never found guilty. However, he was fined $150 and ordered to six months of supervision when resisting arrest after one incident. And let’s not forget the Hall of Famer also came under fire in 1998 when Hull allegedly made pro-Nazi comments to the Russian media by saying, “Hitler, for example, had some good ideas. He just went a little bit too far."
2 Raffi Torres
San Jose Sharks' forward Raffi Torres is a well-known NHL head hunter and has just finished serving his record 41-game suspension. No matter who Torres has suited up for in the past, be it the New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks, or Arizona Coyotes, he’s been a controversial player in each city. Torres may not serve a lot of minor penalties however he surely serves more than his fair share of suspensions. Torres has now been thrown out of the NHL on five occasions for his play. His latest was the 41 games received back in October of this season for aiming a body check at Anaheim Ducks’ player Jakob Silfverberg’s head in a preseason game. Torres was nailed with a 25-game ban during the 2011-12 postseason for an illegal hit to the head on Marian Hossa of the Chicago Blackhawks, but lucked out when it was reduced to 21 games. He was also suspended again in the following season’s playoffs for half a dozen contests for a high hit on Jared Stoll, then of the Los Angeles Kings. Torres has already served 77 games of suspensions during his career.
1 Todd Bertuzzi
Forward Todd Bertuzzi was a member of the Vancouver Canucks and playing for head coach Marc Crawford back in 2004 and was known around the league as a bit of an agitator. However, he went too far in a home game against the Colorado Avalanche in March when he attacked Steve Moore from behind with a sucker punch and drove his head into the ice by jumping him. Bertuzzi was charged with assault and suspended by the NHL as well as the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), but found himself back on the ice in August of 2015. Bertuzzi didn’t miss much action though, just 20 games in total, since the NHL was locked out for the 2004-05 season. Moore ended up retiring from the league and the civil court case against him dragged on for years. Bertuzzi and Moore finally came to an agreement regarding the assault in 2014. As far as the criminal charges went, Bertuzzi pleaded guilty to assault, was given a year’s probation, 80-hours of community service and a conditional discharge. He was also banned from playing in any game against Moore.